University research and teaching – is the nexus broken?

Jul 1, 2020

Emphasis in higher education funding overlooks the fundamental nexus between teaching and research. Academics are driven by their training and inclination to pursue research questions.

Teaching and research are where academics receive personal rewards. Lost opportunities to continue to serve as a researcher and teacher will imperil our nation’s ability to be innovative and reduce our capacity to enrich our society with critical thinkers who inspire future generations.

When I think back to my days in university employment, I think of the joys of both teaching and research. The opportunity and privilege associated with being paid to create knowledge and to transmit it drove me as an academic. It was hard to be otherwise, especially working with likeminded colleagues. Yes, the were some who as researchers found teaching a chore, and yes there were some who over time ceased playing an active role in research. But on the whole, being an academic meant being free to engage in stimulating debates and continuous learning. And being active in research was fundamental to all that.

It is annoying to hear senior members of government referring to universities in narrow terms of providing consumers with skills that meet demands for labour. If universities were to be simply teaching only institutions then make that a clear policy and not pretend otherwise. Is that Education Minister Tehan’s intent? Well, we must hope not. It is very dangerous to allow our universities to be seen as “job factories”. Then let us take the other step and laud our academics for what they strive and are skilled to do: allow their curious, creative minds to build on existing knowledge, test and develop new ideas and so be able to inspire students to think and learn. In turn, academics will learn from their students and society will benefit from this continuous process that links teaching and research.

What is it that motivates most academics? My experience is that curiosity is a key driver, it certainly is not money. Career progression is largely dependent on research success. They demand the freedom to be part of an environment where ideas are contested and exchanged, and such is not just confined to the humanities and social sciences. This is not self-indulgence; this is building on one’s talents and committing years of postgraduate studies and personal investment in achieving what a scientist or scholar is driven to. Here is where some of the nation’s best and brightest minds across a range of disciplines set themselves to work around the clock to challenge set ideas.

It is part of a never-ending process of testing, analysing, and comprehending different ways of thinking that form the corpus of knowledge. Here lies the great advantage that academics have, they should be free to pursue blue sky or fundamental research and critical thinking as part of their “job”. In some ways, it is insulting to require of a university academic to justify their research endeavours in what a government may consider to be in the “national interest”. Knowledge creation must be seen as of national significance in its own right, not just in what is produced in scientific or scholarly papers or books, but because the process of knowledge creation flows to their students and from there into the community (even the economy). Here is the nexus which lies at the core of a being in a university.

If governments seek research to be directed to something that they define as “national interest” then they always have at hand government research institutions like CSIRO. This does not mean there cannot be opportunities for academic staff to undertake research on problems that may serve the public or private interest, so-called applied research. Academics have proved time and time again how their fundamental research that which they do with industry or government agency partners has benefitted society.

Clearly there must be protocols around such research, including the need to protect the individual and university intellectual property.  From time to time there will be limits on freedom to express critical views in the subject areas of one’s speciality, but this must be the exception, not the rule. Cooperative Research Centres and ARC Linkage Grant schemes help facilitate such endeavours.

The current debate about funding universities has led to criticism of the corporate model of funding. Minister Tehan acknowledges that the sustainability of university research needs to be addressed as revenue dries up threatening on-going projects and jobs. Any dependency on funds from fees derived from overseas students for research purposes, or cross-subsidising from one faculty to another depending on student fee income, does not reflect sustainability. The corporate model and the ability/capacity of all Australian universities to engage in BOTH teaching and research is under threat right now. This is a very sad state of affairs.

A new funding model such as that used in the UK and elsewhere must be considered. To me retaining that nexus is vital. Employment of casual and teaching-only staff while useful in certain circumstances does not constitute a striving university. Universities must work to their strengths recognising that many carry huge research equipment and support staff costs that place those institutions in the top 100 in the world. Infrastructure is one thing but so is the ability of universities to undertake cross-disciplinary research. Here lie many potential breakthroughs in thinking with subsequent benefits that can be of global, not just national significance.

What is needed is a clear strategic vision of universities in the provision of research and teaching opportunities that is independent of fluctuations in the fee-paying student market. The need is for sustained investment in university research and research training at a scale equal to if not better than other OECD nations.

It is research excellence that drives international rankings and reputations of our scientists and scholars which in turn encourages vital international partnerships and exchange of knowledge. This brings respect for Australian achievements and capabilities.  This is not simply a matter of special pleading; it is nation-building in science, technology, social science, and the humanities. The power inherent in the development of critical minds knows no bounds and is what the nexus of teaching and research creates—do not let it ever be broken.

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